CHICAGO – Quick-hit thoughts after the first quarter of the Patriots’ game against the Bears in snowy, windy conditions at Soldier Field, with the Patriots leading 7-0:
Wes Welker, in short-sleeves, delivers early. After a three-and-out on the Patriots’ opening, receiver Wes Welker came up with a few catches that helped the offense put together a 12-play, 85-yard drive in these challenging conditions. One came on third down, as Welker, in short sleeves, showed up big for the offense. He is set to move into fourth place on the Patriots’ all-time receiving charts today.
Tipped pass could have broken INT-less streak. Tom Brady entered the day having thrown 228 straight passes without an interception, a franchise record. That streak almost ended on the Patriots’ second drive, when his second-down attempt into the end was tipped by linebacker Brian Urlacher and almost picked off by safety Chris Harris. On the next play, Brady found tight end Rob Gronkowski for a 7-yard touchdown connection.
Runs to the outside are tough. As BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ first carry of the day showed, running to the outside and planting to make a cut is going to be tough. Green-Ellis was stopped for a 4-yard loss on the play. Green-Ellis’ next attempt, on the Patriots’ next drive, was a straight-up-the-gut effort for 12 yards with a big wham block delivered by tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Game-plan wrinkle on defense with Ron Brace at NT. The Patriots have altered the look of their 3-4 alignment, with Ron Brace moving from end to nose tackle and Vince Wilfork playing left end. This appears to be a game-plan decision to put Brace over undersized center Olin Kreutz (6-2, 292) and then have Wilfork, the Patriots’ top lineman, work against rookie right tackle J’Marcus Webb, who has struggled at times this season. The Patriots are also playing Patrick Chung at safety over Brandon Meriweather, which might be tied to better run support from that position.
As expected, Gary Guyton fills Brandon Spikes void. With starting inside linebacker Brandon Spikes serving the first game of his four-game suspension, third-year linebacker Gary Guyton has stepped into his role in the base 3-4 alignment. The Patriots are playing a lot of 3-4 today. When they go away from it, they are taking outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich off the field and adding safety Jarrad Page.
Third-down defensive problems – and Devin McCourty’s fine play -- show up on Bears’ second drive. On third-and-18, the Bears converted on a 19-yard pass, which highlighted the Patriots’ struggles on third down this season (they entered the game ranked last in the NFL in that category). But rookie cornerback Devin McCourty batted away a pass on third-and-4 to force a punt later in the drive.